As autumnal golds and oranges wash over the north Georgia hillsides, visitors are flocking to fall festivals in rural communities, like the Georgia Apple Festival in Ellijay.
With nearly 500 acres of orchards across a dozen family-owned farms, Gilmer County is a popular tourist destination during the festival season of mid-October.
While the Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce has not researched the festival’s exact economic impact on the town, locals say fall festival season is the busiest time of the year.
That’s how Stephen Aaron, manager of Aaron Family Apple House, describes it.
“If you’re local and you’re not working, you either stay home or get out of town. It gets hectic.” — Gilmer County extension agent Edward Ayers.
Agritourism, or the use of farms, ranches and agriculture-based locations as tourist destinations, has grown significantly in Georgia within the past decade.
According to UGA’s Center for Agribusiness & Economic Development, the agritourism industry was valued at $782 million in 2015, an 11 percent increase from its $703 million worth in 2014.
The center’s director Dr. Kent Wolfe partially attributes the growth of agritourism to the 2008 recession. Families began to forego the expensive annual vacation in favor of cheaper day trips closer to home.
Wolfe went on to compare a day trip to a farm and an evening at a movie theater, both of which cost around $50 for a family of four.
“If you go to the movies, you just sit there, you don’t talk, you eat popcorn, you go home,” he said. “But with agritourism, you actually interact. You build memories. It’s more of an adventure.”
Dr. Bynum Boley, an assistant professor in Warnell’s Natural Resources Recreation and Tourism department, boils down the agritourism industry into a simple give-and-take. As city centers like Atlanta grow more populated, the green spaces on family farms grow more valuable.
“So you have this trading relationship where urban people import experiences in nature, and rural areas export their preserved natural resources to the tourists,” he said.
When it comes to the bigger picture, Boley argues that tourism and natural resource conservation can work hand in hand to preserve green spaces across the country. As he explained in his 2016 study, Boley believes the future of conservation efforts requires a symbiotic relationship with the tourism industry.
“What do you even need to have tourism? Something worth seeing,” he said. “Tourism, especially agritourism, may be an incentive to protect remaining natural areas.”
On the other hand, agritourism can be a key factor in preserving rural lifestyles in North Georgia communities.
For commodity farmers like the family-owned Ellijay orchards, it can be hard to support two or three generations on the farm’s income alone. Wolfe says this is why many young people are forced to seek employment outside their hometowns and move away.
Wolfe says the growth of the agritourism industry has allowed countless family businesses to preserve and share their heritage while combating negative stereotypes that farmers destroy their lands for profit.
“This is these folks’ livelihood,” Wolfe said. “They take great pride in it, so they’re not out there trying to destroy what’s giving them their living and their livelihood.”
Ayers says the influx of traffic this time of year inspires Ellijay’s agriculture business to get creative. Now, orchards have diversified their varieties of apples and feature wagon rides, ziplines and pig races to draw in more customers.
It all shows up in the annual Georgia Apple Festival at the Ellijay Lions Club Fairgrounds featuring more than 300 art vendors as well as locally based apple products. An annual event now in its 46th year, with farmers expecting 46 years more.
“As long as our farmers have new ideas, I can only see the industry continuing to grow,” he said.
– Casie Wilson